The more time I spend in Startup World™, the more I hear people repeat some variant of the phrase “follow your passion.” I’m not sure if the people who are spouting this advice really believe it, or if it’s just something they heard from someone else and have been blindly repeating ever since, like a terrible game of business telephone. Either way, it’s reached the point where I feel like if I hear it one more time, I’m going to snap. Because “follow your passion” is completely useless advice.
A brief aside, first: calling a specific piece of advice useless is not that helpful, since all advice is useless — at least, all advice of the “successful person tells you how to be just like them” genre. What separates the truly successful from everyone else who works hard is usually some combination of privilege, dumb luck, and maybe a few good decisions they made along the way — but the chances that a successful person actually knows which decisions those were are slim.
Although they’d never admit it (and probably don’t even realize it themselves), most successful people have absolutely no idea what made them successful. Wizened old billionaires will tell you that their secret was reading the newspaper every day, but I’ll bet you a bunch of them masturbated every day too, and they’re not going around telling Charlie Rose that was what made them rich.
So most advice is useless. But even when measured against that incredibly low standard, “follow your passion” is bad advice. It’s not only useless, it’s actively counterproductive. Here’s why.
“Follow your passion” implies that we all know what our passion is — we just need a little kick to go after it. But the reality is the exact opposite: for most people, the hard part is figuring out what your passions are in the first place. No one needs a random stranger’s prodding to do something they’re really, truly passionate about. For example, I’m pretty passionate about having sex, and I’ve never needed a TED Talk to convince me to follow that passion when the opportunity presents itself.
But really, that example is cheating: it’s not hard to be passionate about traveling to that country you’ve always wanted to visit, or going to your favorite band’s show, or kissing a person you love. Not so when it comes to quote-unquote “passions” that relate to a career. If you’ve always wanted the kind of job you’d find in a children’s book — if your “passion” is being a firefighter, or an astronaut, or a princess — then maybe you’ve known about it from a young age, but for the rest of us, the only way to figure out what you’re passionate about is to try something and see what happens. In most industries, passion is an acquired taste.
I’ve made it this far while largely resisting the urge to put “passion” in air quotes every time I use it, but seriously: when did it become so bad to simply like what you do? The myth that we have to feel “passion” for our careers is part of the same twenty-first century, Cosmo-cover verbal inflation that tells us all our sex has to be “mind-blowing” and that all our vacations have to be “the trip of a lifetime,” or that ending a text message with a period means we’re mad.
Merely spending your days on something that a) you’re good at, b) contributes something to the greater good, and c) you like most of the time is a standard that 99% of the world doesn’t have the luxury of meeting. If you do, consider yourself lucky and move on.
And in Startup World in particular, lots of great businesses are born out of the opposite of passion, at least in the optimistic, New-Agey way the word is typically used. Uber wasn’t born because Travis Kalanick loved transportation logistics; it was born because he hated not being able to get a cab. (Basecamp’s Jason Fried — a man whose startup bullshit detector is second-to-none — has written about this far more eloquently than I can.)
But let’s imagine for a moment that none of this applies to you. You’re one of those magical creatures who slipped out of the womb with your one passion already burned into your brain, and you’ve turned it into a career that’s satisfying, and pays well, and gives you the kind of prestige where you’re regularly invited up onto the stage at conferences to tell all the seekers in the audience about how they just need to follow their passion and they can be exactly like you. Even then, “follow your passion” is bad advice.
Completely missing from this idea of “following your passion” is any concept of how the thing you’re doing creates value for anyone other than yourself. I’m not one of those career utilitarians who believes your job has to do the most possible good for the most possible people — and I’m certainly not a fan of incessently aspiring to “change the world” — but if you’re not at least helping some people some of the time, you’re doing it wrong.
And besides, starting from a place outside yourself is easier. Just like how the worst path to happiness is actively trying to be happy, the worst path to self-satisfaction is actively trying to satisfy yourself. Un-selfish ends often achieve selfish aims. (This could be a topic for a whole other essay, but I actually think that many evils in the world come not from people actively trying to serve themselves, but rather from people actively trying to serve the wrong others. Think, for example, of the insider traders who give their friends illicit information at no benefit to themselves.)
Making it personal.
This might be heresy to admit, but by and large I’m not “passionate” about the work we do at Castle. I enjoy my job, it motivates me, and I’m confident, most of the time, that the world is a better place with Castle in it. There are times — celebrating with the team after a big win, or releasing a major update, or even just resolving an incredibly small issue that you know will make the one person it affect’s day just the tiniest bit better — that the feeling I get from my work borders on the blissful.
But most of the time, I’m not “passionate” about what I do — and the more time goes by, and the more confident I feel in myself as a founder, the less pressure I feel to pretend that I am. I like my job. I’m good at it. I’d rather be doing this than anything else. And that’s enough.